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Love and pain

Love may be an overstatement, but a new study shows there’s something emotional going on between consumers and brands
The evidence to demonstrate its effect is there – and it is remarkable
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards is the 2017 PPA business columnist of the year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

In November last year Linda Boff, chief marketing officer of GE, tweeted an image of a sign she’d seen in the reception of a digital publishing group. It read: “Build brands people love”,  to which she added the comment: “Spotted at the Oath offices and loved! Good mantra for us marketers. #Wednesdaywisdom.”

Within 20 minutes, her message was retweeted by Professor Byron Sharp, director of the Ehrenburg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia. His comment was less upbeat: “So misguided. We have so many more important priorities. This stuff is an embarrassment to marketing.”

What does this brief exchange tell us about the marketing industry today? It tells us that one of our “important priorities” might be to gain some kind of agreement on how marketing works – and doesn’t.

As it stands, it’s the schism that’s the embarrassment. This isn’t an arcane debate meandering down some industry byway – like whether programmatic buyers are overusing third-party data – it’s about fundamentals. “Brand love” is a destination routinely evoked in the PowerPoint charts of marketing teams and the agencies that advise them. Scholarly papers and bestselling books have dissected it. In April 2017 Campaign ran a piece by five senior marketers on the “five steps” to achieving it. Not just #Wednesdaywisdom, then, but conventional wisdom.

As such, it has been robustly challenged by the evidence-based school, of which Sharp is a leading advocate. Citing data to advance the more transactional virtues of salience, availability and reach, its adherents dismiss the existence of brand love and take a swipe at the commercial objective to which it is normally shackled: brand loyalty.

One of the problems here is looseness of language. “Love” is a short word but a huge one, a bare syllable that seeks to convey the profound emotions that give meaning to our closest human relationships. Perhaps it can be justifiably extended to the animals we welcome into our lives,  and to religions and countries – but brands? Do we really think these mere commercial fragments are up to bearing its weight?

No. Nevertheless, there are many of us who recognise an “emotional something” that exists somewhere along the spectrum between cold transaction at one end, and full-on love at the other. A sense of closeness, of personal aptness, that some brands inspire.

What about evidence, though? Is there anything out there to support the existence of this “emotional something” and demonstrate its effect? There is – and it is both recent and remarkable.

Love and Pain column imageIn a paper published last October in the Journal of Consumer Research, three authors showed that when people contemplate or see brands that they feel close to, it can help them reduce felt pain.

In the first of seven experiments, volunteers placed their hands in a “cold compressor” ice chest – “an established method of inducing pain”. While doing it, each was asked to look at a laptop in front of them.

The group had been split in two. In one half, each volunteer was shown the logo of a brand they had identified as feeling particularly close to. The other half – the controls – was shown a “neutral valence” image of a chair.

When asked afterwards to assess on a six-point scale the pain they had felt, those who had seen their favourite brand reported much lower levels than the control group.

“Across seven studies,” the authors concluded, “the current research demonstrated that contemplating close  brand relationships insulates against physical pain.” (See panel for more on the paper.)

Caveats apply. The studies were conducted in an artificial setting, and most marketers aren’t in the business of helping their customers deal with pain. And while it is extraordinary that the mere sight of a brand can have such a profound effect on sense of wellbeing, we still haven’t identified the “emotional something” that drives it.

The authors reach for the explanation of brands as “relationship partners”, echoing a much earlier theory from Susan Fournier. It’s a typically vague notion, not so far from the terms the industry often conjures to fill the void: brand connection, emotional engagement, bonding.

My own view, drawing on three decades of academic research into symbolic consumption, is that the “something” is a contribution to personal identity. There isn’t space here to go into that – it would be like doing Anna Karenina in haiku – but I will expand on it in a chapter I am contributing to a book published later this year by the Account Planning Group. (It will feature contributions from more than 30 industry luminaries – including one Byron Sharp.)

For now, though, I venture this: there is more than one way to build a brand, and there is wisdom in embracing more than one type of evidence. That may not be as snappy as Boff’s offering, courtesy of Oath, but it could just be a mantra for us marketers.

The ‘Brand Aid’ study

Conducted by academics from University of Arizona, US, and Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico, the study aimed to explore whether “close brand relationships” could mimic close interpersonal relationships in their ability to help people cope with pain.

Volunteers were asked upfront to name brands they felt particularly close to. The list included BMW, Nike, Zara, Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe’s and Guinness.

Across seven experiments, involving 1511 participants, the authors showed that seeing, or even just contemplating, a favoured brand resulted in lower reported levels of pain induced in the experimental setting, as well as in remembered pain from a past accident or event.

To aim off for the possibility that seeing or recalling a brand constitutes a distraction, which could explain the findings, controls were given “neutral” objects to focus on or imagine. In all seven experiments, controls reported higher pain levels than those engaging with a brand.

The findings were reported in the October 2017 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research – a four-star (highest prestige) global academic publication.